Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. (Amos 8:11)
In Mormon contexts, this Old Testament text is often taken as a prophecy of the Great Apostasy, and sometimes as a description of people outside the LDS church today. Sadly, there is a sense in which this statement is true, as well, of many active, faithful Latter-day Saints.
Our ward in Caracas, Venezuela, has a variety of surpluses: of love for strangers; of new converts who are taking their first joyful steps into Mormonism; of women making valiant efforts to raise Mormon children without support from their inactive or nonmember husbands; of people who don’t quite have enough to feed their own families but who nonetheless sacrifice to help those in even worse circumstances. Even so, the ward suffers from a set of important shortages: of hymn books; of copies of the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price; of subscriptions to the Liahona (the international church magazine).
For some reason, many wards in Caracas don’t have hymn books available for use in the chapel. Our bishop explained that they weren’t given funds to buy hymn books, and the local distribution center has evidently never given the wards free hymnals. So hymn books are private property. This has negative consequences: prospective converts, new members, and the poorest established members have no access to the hymns we sing together on Sundays.
Everyone has a copy of the Book of Mormon, because the church gives those, at least, away for free in great quantities. The same is, unforunately, not true regarding Bibles or triple combinations. Many, although certainly not all, members have family Bibles. However, the modest sums necessary to purchase a triple combination are beyond the means of about half of the ward members.
The same is true of subscriptions to the Liahona–which are actually somewhat more expensive than the cheapest triple combinations, and have the further disadvantage of being an annual expense. Of course, members who can’t afford a subscription can read the Liahona at home on their high-speed internet connections, but only if they (a) have computers, (b) have high-speed internet connections, and (c) aren’t too intimidated by the fact that the web page listing issues of the Liahona is, for some reason, in English. (Actually, internet cafes are widespread in Venezuela, but their prices are also out of reach for many poor members.)
My wife and I wanted to help with this situation. We spoke with our bishop and our stake president, and both begged us to get donations of funds from U.S. wards to help Venezuelan members have the basics: a hymnal, a complete set of scriptures, and a subscription to the Liahona. We contacted various wards that we were connected with; nobody chose to help with the project.
Another ward, another set of challenges. This time in the high Andes of Peru. Here, the problems involve language and illiteracy. Peru’s once-high levels of illiteracy are slowly vanishing, a result of the dramatic expansion of rural educational opportunities during the nationalist-reformist military dictatorship of the 1970s and of subsequent governments. However, Peru today still has quite a lot of adult illiteracy, concentrated particularly among older people who were born in homes where Spanish was not the primary language.
The ward we attended was about half native Spanish speakers and about half native Quechua speakers. Of the Quechua speakers, about half could communicate pretty well in Spanish and about half could not. Because Quechua was traditionally not a written language, many of the Quechua speakers have never learned to read any language. Hence, the Book of Mormon and other scriptures in Spanish — and even the selections from the Book of Mormon in Quechua that the church publishes — remain to these members a sealed book.
As we entered Sunday School, it became evident that something strange was going on. After about ten minutes of a typical Gospel Doctrine lesson, the bishop walked in and commandeered the class. He asked a series of pop-quiz questions regarding the reading assigned for that day, and most of the members were unable to respond. The bishop then used the rest of the class period to give the members a quite thorough lecture regarding their evident failure to read the scriptures assigned for Sunday School. He explained that, by not reading the scriptures faithfully enough, these members were not fulfilling their baptismal covenants. They were letting down the missionaries who had baptised them; they were the reason the church was not growing in Peru as it once had.
About twenty minutes into this lecture, one of the class members (a native Quechua speaker who could communicate clearly, but certainly not fluently, in Spanish) raised his hand. He asked, “What about my wife and these other sisters, who don’t speak any Spanish and have never learned to read?” The bishop replied that they hadn’t shown enough faith; if they had the faith, God would work a miracle and they would be able to read the scriptures.
My wife and I decided that we could help work that miracle. We got in touch with a set of people at BYU who were willing to record an audio version of the Quechua selections of the Book of Mormon and provide the audio files to the stake we had visited. They were also going to raise funds to purchase CD players for the Quechua speakers of the stake. The stake president agreed to arrange to have CD copies of the new Quechua audio Book of Mormon burned for each relevant member. Unfortunately, the literacy specialists that the stake president put us in contact with quickly lost interest in the program, and nothing ever happened.